A dog comes face to face with the Wild West


This June, I attended my first snake class. It was not a tutorial on snake charming, but rather a training session designed to teach dogs to avoid rattlesnakes.

Classes like this take place in many Western states where rattlesnakes slither – from California to Idaho to the Front Range of Colorado, where I live. My dog and I were candidates for such a class because Uinta, our big German shepherd mix – the jury is out on whether she's part husky or wolf – likes to investigate anything that moves, especially if it's on the ground.

Last summer, a rattler worked its way down South Table Mountain, which backs up to our yard in Golden, and bit Uinta multiple times on the snout. One look at her sorrowful caramel-colored eyes, and my longtime stance on limiting the amount of money I thought we should spend on our pets changed as quickly as Uinta's neck swelled. Anti-venom injections, a three-day hospital stay and thousands of dollars later, Uinta returned home in one piece.

The reality of owning dogs out West had finally sunk in for this former cat owner and native of Washington, D.C. But I had to admit that this was not Uinta's first time at the wildlife rodeo. From batting paws at a cougar to taking down an apparently rabid deer to defending our home when a bear tried to raid the kitchen, she's no stranger to the local wildlife.

This may be because the West enjoys wide-open spaces and relatively few people. With the exception of California, all the states in our region settle into the bottom 50-percent of states ranked by population density.

If you live in the rural areas or mountain towns that dominate much of the West, your dog-walking trails, like ours, are likely to border public land containing mountains, canyons and forests. We live in semi-wild country, where open space meshes with our yards, and where feral, as well as wild, animals roam alongside our domesticated pets. So our dogs don't trot around in embroidered sweaters and booties; instead, they display the marks of old battles -- scars and ripped ears from predatory run-ins with other creatures.

My first lesson in this fact of life came several summers ago, when I housesat a condo in Mt. Crested Butte, Colorado, with two black Labs and a cat named Kitty. Casey, then my boyfriend and now my husband, often stayed over, bringing Uinta to play with the Labs -- grumpy old Holden and energetic Piper. The Labs, I'd been warned, should not be let out to roam together or they'd get into trouble -- namely by messing with the porcupines that called the surrounding hillsides home. Several times in the past, the dogs had escaped only to return with quill-decorated faces.

Sure enough, they ran off together under my watch. We'd tied up Holden in the back yard, but he soon managed to chew through the climbing rope, determined to join Piper in her porcupine-seeking quest. When we found the dogs several hours later, Holden looked like the victim of an acupuncturist gone mad; surgery was in order. On another occasion, Uinta and Holden disappeared for no more than 15 minutes, yet Uinta returned with 10 or so quills pocking her face.

Later that summer, I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of pots clanging and dishes breaking. When I saw Uinta pawing and barking at our closed bedroom door, I finally realized what I'd been hearing: A black bear was preparing a little midnight snack in our kitchen. We called animal control, and luckily, only a few warning shots were necessary before the bear decided to exit through the window it had broken to enter, leaving behind broken dishes, scattered Cheez-Its, and a half-drunk can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Good guarding, Uinta.

Uinta has been helpful in other ways, too. On a run one winter's night, when I heard a mountain lion yowl, she helped me stay calm as she trotted by my side. Then there was the embarrassing time she tackled a sickly deer in the parking lot of the nearby Coors Brewery, as dozens of tourists looked on in horror. I'm sure there are many late-night encounters with wildlife that we'll never know about — and it's probably just as well.

Is it risky owning pets in the Wild West, where adventures like this can be commonplace? And does it get expensive when those risks become realities? Yes. But I'd rather Uinta and her canine colleagues continue to explore the wild that their ancestors once inhabited, long before we tamed them.

Maya Silver is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She is an editor at DiningOut magazines and the author of "My Parent Has Cancer And It Really Sucks." She lives in Golden, Colorado.

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